|Kevin Kovacs is back at his alma mater, helping his team overcome obstacles and make history along the way.
Gallaudet Athletics/David Sinclair
The Gallaudet men's basketball team has one goal in mind as the regular season draws closer to an end and March rapidly approaches -- keep playing.
The Bison (18-4, 16-1) will enter the final week of the regular season in control of the NEAC conference race. The team's 18 wins have tied a program record, and the 16 conference wins represent a new program mark. The program's last conference championship in men's basketball came in the 1942-43 season, but with five more wins -- three in the regular season, two in the NEAC tournament -- Gallaudet would improve to 23-4 and enter the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
Kevin Kovacs, now in his second season as the Bison's head coach, inherited a team that went 18-7 in 2014-15. But it wasn't just the on-court talent that drew Kovacs to the position -- it was the chance to help impact the lives of young men at the world's only institution of higher education for the deaf and hard of hearing.
"It's been so surreal for me to be able to return to Gallaudet," Kovacs said this past weekend via email. "I often have to pinch myself, and I feel so humbled to be able to do this for the school I love."
Kovacs played one season for the Gallaudet basketball team in 1994-95, the same year he finished his undergraduate studies. He served as an assistant coach for the next two seasons while completing his masters. Kovacs' career then took him into teaching. He spent 10 years as an elementary school teacher at the Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Minn., followed by eight years as the athletic director at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, Calif.
When the chance to coach at his alma mater presented itself, Kovacs couldn't pass up the opportunity. The success has been immediate. In Kovacs' first season, the Bison finished 18-8 and reached the NEAC tournament semifinals for only the second time since joining the conference in 2010-11.
Kovacs is quick to deflect credit from himself to others involved with the program, including former coaches, current athletic staff members, and players of the past and present. But the second-year coach has strengthened the team-first, unselfish attitude that permeates the program. The Bison start two seniors (center Joshua McGriff, guard Raymond Nelson), one junior (forward Andy Cruz), one sophomore (guard Jawaun Jackson) and one freshman (guard Noah Valencia), along with a bench that features nine underclassmen.
Nelson has excelled at running the team's offense as the starting point guard, despite it not being his natural position. Cruz is the Bison's version of "MacGyver," according to Kovacs, as he's both consistent and crafty. Valencia has made an immediate impact as one of the team's premier outside shooters. McGriff, the 10th-leading scorer in program history with 1,293 career points, has put together a strong season despite constant double teams in the post. As a team, the Bison average 77 points per game, an impressive but earth-shattering total. It's on defense where the team has made the most progress.
Gallaudet has held opponents to 36.5 percent shooting and 69.5 points per game this season while implementing regular stretches of man defense. It's difficult enough for any college team to transition between zone and man defense, as the latter requires significant on-court communication. That the Bison have done that without verbal communication is nothing short of remarkable.
"The challenge is obviously that we have to rely on our eyes more," Kovacs said. "All coaches say that communication is the most important part in any defense you play, especially man, where there might be switches, takeovers, communicating a move, and all that. It takes extra effort and determination for us to play our man defense."
Playing basketball without verbal communication adds a significant degree of difficulty, but Gallaudet's players have faced that challenge head-on their entire lives. Still, it can create frustrating situations at times, particularly with officials.
"It's very common that the opposing players and coaches try to have an ongoing conversation with the officials to get explanations or share their concerns, which in turn could either make a difference or not," Kovacs said. "I don't know what we can do about that, but then we just try to go hard and do what we need to do to succeed without the benefit of talking to the officials."
Gallaudet, located in Washington, DC, is the only four-year liberal arts college for the deaf and hard of hearing in the world, so its campus events and athletics teams are important to many people across the globe. That is not lost on Kovacs.
"I always believed that our team's success will never belong solely to the team, but to our community and alumni all over the world," Kovacs said. "You watch the Super Bowl, World Series, NCAA championships, etc., and how we don't get to see deaf or hard of hearing people play and become victorious. This is why Nyle DiMarco's win with "America's Next Top Model" and "Dancing with the Stars" was such a big deal to all of us around the world."
Kovacs stresses to his players to treat every season like it's their senior year. Why? Because no two years are ever the same on a college basketball team. This will be the only season the current 15 players ever get together at Gallaudet, so they have to make it count. So far, so good.
"I honestly cannot think of another place that gives students an opportunity to do whatever they want and succeed without any communication barriers, and in an environment where we are all rooting for each other to succeed in whatever they choose to pursue," Kovacs said. "There are no other college teams in the world like us."
Rochester extends winning streak, improves to 19-1
Since a five-point loss to Washington University on Jan. 15, the Rochester men's team has gone 6-0, including a sweep of NYU and Brandeis this past weekend.
Senior guard Sam Borst-Smith sparked a 101-58 rout of NYU on Friday by posting a game-high 18 points, along with seven rebounds and five assists. Senior forward Zack Ayers posted a team-high 19 points on Sunday in a 78-51 win against Brandeis. Borst-Smith, Ayers, senior guard Mack Montague, junior forward Tucker Knox and sophomore guard Jacob Wittig have each started all 20 games this season.
That consistency has helped Rochester to its most wins since it finished 22-5 in 2012-13. That season also marked Rochester's last trip to the NCAA tournament, which ended in a second-round loss to Ithaca. Rochester has five regular-season games left over the next three weeks, but sits in great position to make a postseason run.
William Smith, Skidmore to play for LL lead
A tight Liberty League race could get even tighter by this coming weekend. William Smith (16-5, 10-2) and Skidmore (13-8, 9-3), the top two teams in the Liberty League standings, will meet in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., this Friday. The Herons topped the Thoroughbreds 65-44 back on Jan. 14, but if Skidmore wins on Friday, the two squads will be tied atop the conference.
Behind those two, Clarkson, Union and Vassar all entered play Tuesday night with identical 7-5 conference records. And behind them is RIT with an 8-6 Liberty League record.
Clarkson and Vassar will meet on Saturday, as will Union and Skidmore. In other words, the next three weeks in the Liberty League will be plenty entertaining.
Top 25 roundup: Geneseo continues climb in poll
Geneseo moved up three spots to No. 18 in this week's D3hoops.com women's Top 25 poll. The Knights remain one of just unbeaten teams in Division III entering play Tuesday night. Rochester and Ithaca also received votes in the women's poll.
In the men's poll, Rochester moved up one spot to No. 4. SUNYAC teams Oswego State and Brockport also received votes in the poll.
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